Film Review: “Minari”

Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” is a candid testimony of Asian-American diaspora as told through a Korean family’s pursuit of the American dream on damped Arkansas soil. 

“Minari” is a story communicated through a series of ‘firsts.’ The film opens with the first time the Yi family behold their new mobile home in rural Arkansas, lush with a babbling brook and encompassing trees that envelop their property in perpetual soft sunlight filtered through green leaves. The mother of the family, Monica (Han Ye-ri), delivers her first silent frown of disapproval upon pausing outside of the gaping door before accepting her husband Jacob’s (Steven Yeun) hand for support in pulling herself up past the tall first step. Both the family and the viewers view the interior of their home for the very first time together, sharing in communion an original experience in lieu of bread and wine. In the subsequent scene, Jacob runs his fingers through his newly acquired American farmland soil for the first time. Their 7-year-old son David (Alan S. Kim) and their older daughter Anne (Noel Cho) become acquainted with their grandmother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) not long into the film, and are introduced to a unique immersion of Korean and American culture in rural Arkansas. The film “Minari” itself is a notable first nudge toward Korean-American media representation that centers its narrative around the nuances of being a first-generation POC immigrant in a primarily white-dominated area. Every moment in this film is a bottomless crater of ‘firsts,’ and yet the amalgamation of all of these primary experiences create a uniquely universal understanding shared by all Korean-Americans alike. 

“Minari” is profoundly specific to the Korean-American experience. This is not to assert that assimilation, cultural dichotomy, and microaggressions are all terms that are exclusive to Korean-American immigrants — which they most certainly are not — but rather, that this film  wholly captured the nuances within the Korean-American immigrant community’s experience adapting to the American societal framework. For example, Monica’s reaction to her mother’s (Soonja) gift of anchovies and chili flakes mirrors a direct memory I have of my own mother holding packaged anchovies in shock while my grandmother grinned, proudly announcing she had snuck it over from Korea by smuggling it under layers of clothes. The immature repulsion David exhibited when his grandmother broke open a chestnut with her teeth, softened it in her mouth, and opened her palm in offering, is a feeling that I ashamedly remember from my youth when I began to equate “Americanness” with “whiteness,” and “whiteness” to everything clean and good. Every scene, including the dreaded punishment of raising your arms above your head while kneeling on the ground, is all-too authentic to my own childhood experiences. The film even touches on Korean-American Christianity, an area of discourse that is not often acknowledged outside of religious or academic channels of discussion. Stemming partly due to Korea’s history under Japanese colonization as well as western assimilation, Christianity is more prevalent among Korean-Americans than any other Asian-American ethnic group. “Minari’s” recognition of the weighted significance that Christianity holds for Korean-Americans for both individual spiritual growth and communal connection is a further testament to the accuracy of this film in its portrayal of Korean-Americans.  

There is something to be said about establishing a permanent residence in a house on wheels. The Yi family’s mobile home is reflective of the ‘perpetual foreigner’ stereotype that incessantly views Asians as non-American, regardless of their citizenship status, as well as the disconnect Asian-Americans feel from both their homeland and America. This assumption that Asians don’t naturally belong in America is a harmful presumption that manifests itself in microaggressions and uncomfortable situations. When a girl at church stopped Anne, asked her, “Can you stop me if I say something in your language?” and proceeded to perform the words “Chinga-chinga-chon-chama-chama-choo,” Anne was presented with two options: she could correct her and be racially gaslit into thinking she was being overly-dramatic, or she could humor her. The scene that is perhaps the film’s most preeminent expression of the communal Asian-American experience of duo-cultural estrangement occurs at one of its final moments. Hand-in-hand, the children lead Soonja back to their trailer home in a shuffled journey under the moon-lit field. With their small faces illuminated by the orange glow of the fire burning the warehouse, David and Anne softly sum up the accumulation of a lifetime desire of immigrants in three short words: “Let’s go home.” The next scene transitions to the Yi family sleeping side-by-side on the carpeted floor of their living room while Soonja watches over them. Together, in a wheeled house thousands of miles away from their motherland, they were finally able to find their home. The grand summation of “Minari” wholly encapsulates the sentiments of longing, alienation, loss, grief, and fellowship that is unique to ethnic immigrants in America. It’s the release of one big sigh that you didn’t realize you had been holding in for the entirety of the movie. It’s the realization that the phantom pain of being a first-generation immigrant of color has a label and antidote. Yes, let’s go home.

Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton
Release Date: Feb. 12, 2021
Rated: PG-13
Grade: A+

Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

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